Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

"Art Pope, Citizens United, and North Carolina Politics," an Interview with Jane Mayer

In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer describes how a rumpled dollar store magnate is quietly reshaping the politics of North Carolina, and maybe the nation. Art Pope has been dubbed “The Knight of the Right” for spending millions of dollars bankrolling conservative causes and candidates.

Mayer describes how Pope threw his money and his infrastructure behind REDMAP, a spectacularly successful 2010 bid to give Republicans control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1870, just in time to redraw the Congressional districts along partisan lines. The GOP is expected to pick up at least four more Congressional seats in the next election.

North Carolina is a purple state that Barack Obama carried by just 14,000 votes in 2008. Some analysts say that the president must repeat that performance to be reelected in 2012.

Mayer reports that Tar Heel Palmetto State Republicans are using their newfound dominance to restrict early voting and mandate government-issued ID at the polls. These kinds of measures can be expected to disproportionately depress voter turnout among key Democratic constituencies including minority voters, youth, and the poor.

Jane Mayer won a Hillman Prize in 2009 for her book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. I interviewed her by email.

Q: Can you say a little more about how the Citizens United Supreme Court decision created opportunities for Pope to influence politics in North Carolina?

A: The Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision held that corporations, like people, have the right to free speech, and that spending money in campaigns is a form of expression, so the result was that it struck down prohibitions against corporations spending money on advertisements directly for and against candidates.  Because of this ruling, Art Pope, who owns a private business in North Carolina, can now legally spend as much money from his company’s general treasury as he wishes on ads aimed at influencing the outcome of political elections. In reality, publicly-held corporations are somewhat restrained in their political spending by the need not to offend shareholders. But the owners of private companies, like Pope and the Koch Brothers, have no need to worry about shareholders. They can freely spend on politics as they see fit. Pope, who was linked to three-quarters of all the independent money spent on state races in North Carolina in 2010, is emblematic of how much influence a single, motivated, wealthy businessman can now wield in the post Citizens United world.

Q: You’ve reported extensively on Charles and David Koch, conservative powerbrokers who are spending their oil and chemical fortune on conservative causes. How would you compare Art Pope’s approach to politics to that of the Koch Brothers?

A: The Kochs have exponentially more money than Art Pope. He appears to have ‘merely’ $148 million in his family foundation, while Charles and David Koch are reportedly each worth upwards of $20 billion. But beyond that, there are some very interesting similarities in how they approach politics.

To begin with, both Art Pope and David Koch harbored major electoral ambitions earlier in their lives and both were defeated, suggesting that their ideas lacked popularity at the ballot box. David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket against Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Art Pope ran for Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina as a Republican in 1992. When neither proved successful, they ramped up efforts to gain political power by other means – principally by the strategic expenditure of their family fortunes.

Both Pope and the Kochs funded non-profit think tanks meant to promote their arch-conservative anti-government agenda, and both also contributed to a plethora of far-right advocacy groups – in fact they have for years funded many of the same ones.

Starting in 1984, Pope and the Kochs actually worked together in setting up Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was a prototype for the kinds of corporate-funded astro-turf groups that have organized the Tea Party movement.  It was followed in 2004 by Americans for Prosperity, which David Koch founded, and for which Art Pope is a director. Both the Kochs and Pope have in many ways pioneered the art of pushing the outer legal limits (without exceeding them as far as I know) of combining non-partisan tax-exempt philanthropy with hyper-partisan advocacy.

They both pour the wealth from private companies founded by their fathers, into personally-controlled, state-of-the-art political machines pushing very similar worldviews. Finally, both the Kochs and Pope contribute heavily both to political campaigns, and to independent groups involved in electoral spending. As such, they both illustrate the enormous power that wealthy businessmen can wield, especially in the post-Citizens United era.

Q: I was surprised to read that Art Pope calls himself an admirer of John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” minus any implications about redistribution of wealth. What part of Rawls’ theory does he admire?

A: Pope likes Rawls’ notion that a just society is one in which all people have equal opportunity. He just thinks that private property and wealth ought to accrue to those who earn it, and that this makes a society more, not less fair.  The key question really, is whether inequality of wealth interferes with inequality of opportunity. He would argue (with some caveats) that it doesn’t.


Pope preaches that we create our own opportunities in life. So, he thinks there’s no need for the government to intervene to ensure the fair equality of opportunity that Rawls said was essential to a just society. On the contrary, he thinks the goverment should do a lot less for the worst-off among us.

After her Pope story ran, Mayer posted a follow-up on the New Yorker’s website about the scope and limits of Pope’s philosophy of rugged individualism and self-bootstrapping. He told her that he was not an heir because his father made him and his siblings buy equity stakes in the family business. I found myself wondering where he got the money to buy in and whether he paid a market price? We know he worked for the family business before he came to own a large chunk of it.

The Facing South blog noted that Pope accepted $330,000 in campaign loans from his parents, which he never paid back.

Meanwhile, as Mayer reported in her original story, the head of the Pope-funded Center for Higher Education Policy has denounced publicly-funded universities as a “boondoggle” and the Republican-controlled state legislators that Pope helped to elect have slashed the budget of North Carolina’s celebrated state-university system by 16%, which will mean layoffs, tuition hikes, and fewer scholarships–even though the state’s constitution guarantees an affordable college education to all residents.

All this talk about the Protestant work ethic, but he made his money the old-fashioned way: his mother bore a son,” David Parker, the chair of the Democratic Party in North Carolina told Mayer in the initial profile, “We are all prisoners of Art Pope’s fantasy world.”

Welcome to "Clear it With Sidney" by Lindsay Beyerstein

Welcome to Clear it With Sidney by Lindsay Beyerstein. You can watch Sidney Hillman Foundation executive director Alexandra Lescaze and me discussing the blog and its mission. This blog is showcase for the best journalism in service of the common good. We bring you exclusive interviews with the journalists who break the stories. Clear It With Sidney will be a community for journalists who have won Hillman-sponsored awards in the past. We will invite them back to talk about their latest projects and new developments in their prizewinning stories.

Clear it With Sidney got its name because of something Sidney Hillman’s critics used to whisper about him. It was said that Hillman, the leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, and a key partner in the New Deal Coalition, was so powerful that FDR told his associates to “clear it with Sidney” before making major decisions. Hillman took the taunt and turned it into a badge of honor.

Sidney Hillman believed in the power of journalism to change society for the better. In a healthy economy, strong unions square off against capital to check corporate power. In a healthy democracy, a free and vibrant press scrutinizes powerful institutions and keeps the public informed so that we are ready to participate in our own governance.

In a democracy, everyone’s perspective matters, but some stories are ignored or suppressed because of systemic biases like sexism, racism, and classism. A healthy and vibrant press challenges itself to confront its own biases and to expose inequities in society.

I don’t know where Sidney Hillman stood on epistemological issues, but I’m old fashioned. I think there’s such a thing as truth and that the very best journalism uncovers it and disseminates it fearlessly.

I am counting on you, the readers of this blog, to be my eyes and ears in the vast and fragmented media landscape. If you see outstanding journalism, tell me about it. To recommend a story, tweet the link @SidneyHillman, hashtag #Sidney. Click here to officially nominate a story for a Sidney Award. You can also send an email to the address on the sidebar, or weigh in on the Sidney Hillman facebook page.


Spencer Soper Wins October Sidney Award for Exposing Brutal Conditions in Warehouse

Spencer Soper, a senior reporter on the business beat at The Morning Call in Allentown, PA, is the winner of this month’s Sidney Award for his expose of brutal working conditions inside’s Lehigh Valley warehouse.

This summer, temperatures inside the warehouse soared to over 100 degrees and management refused to open the doors for ventilation. Amazon hired a private ambulance company to wait outside to treat workers suffering from heat-related illnesses.

Workers told Soper that they felt pressured to push themselves to the point of collapse because they could be penalized or even fired for slowing down or taking time off to seek medical attention.

Since the story ran on Sept 18, Amazon has been deluged with calls from angry customers, according to Soper’s Sep 23 follow-up story. Despite a flurry of public statements from Amazon, current warehouse employees said that nothing had changed inside the warehouse since the initial story ran.

You can read my interview with Soper about the making of the expose in The Backstory, our monthly feature on the story behind the latest Sidney Award-winning story.

[Photo courtesy of Spencer Soper.]

How Unpaid Internships Perpetuate Inequality

Anna Lekas Miller has a good piece in AlterNet about unpaid internships as a hidden cause of inequality. She notes that as the job market has tightened, internships have become more common and less beneficial to the intern:

Internships are the new entry-level job—the same duties and basic experience, only this time without compensation or benefits.

Statistics show that half of all internships are paid, but most of these positions are extraordinarily competitive, and unsurprisingly concentrated in the financial sector. Certain internships in other industries offer a small stipend, but hardly anything that is adequate to subsist on, especially in a major city. The worst offenders list positions as “paid” only to reveal that compensation is in the form of lunch or a monthly metrocard.

In some fields, a stint as an unpaid intern is practically required to land a paying job. The internship system serves as a little-discussed but significant barrier to applicants who can’t afford to work for free.

[Photo credit: banger1977, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

-Asjylyn Loder and David Evans of Bloomberg delve into decades of dirt on Koch Industries. This one is so packed with damning details you’ll probably have to read it twice. It’s worth it.

-Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a judge, weighing the fates of the people who appear in your courtroom? Benjamin Weiser of the New York Times has a compelling human interest story about Denny Chin, a federal judge in Manhattan. “It is just not a natural or everyday thing to do,” Judge Chin told the Times, “to pass judgment on people, to send them to prison or not.”

-After years of complacency, federal regulators are taking notice of erionite, a highly carcinogenic mineral which has been detected in soils throughout the American West. The headline for Myron Levin’s erionite investigation, “Peril in the West”, co-published by MSNBC, is probably too strong, since it’s still an open question whether the mineral is sickening Americans, but the piece does a good job explaining why the question bears further study.

-In the Washington Post, Rich Yeselson, a historian and researcher for Change to Win on how the Occupy protests breaking out around the country might mature into an enduring, self-sustaining movement.





The Voice of C. Montgomery Burns Suggests New Business Model for "The Simpsons"

Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, argues persuasively in The Daily Beast that Fox should keep the show on the air for another season and preserve its profit margin by offering the cast of the 23-year, multi-billion dollar cultural juggernaut a small fraction of the show’s profits in exchange for salary cuts. 

Fox claims the “business model” of The Simpsons is no longer viable. The network has demanded that the cast take a 45% pay cut if the show is to return for a twenty-fourth season.

Shearer says that’s fine by him. He’d be willing to take a 45% pay cut, or even a 70% pay cut in exchange for a small share of future profits from the show.

Sounds reasonable to me.

[Photo credit: the_mi, Creative Commons.]

Organized Labor Rallies to Occupy Wall Street

Thousands of union workers rallied in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street protesters in Manhattan on Wednesday. Clear it With Sidney was on hand with Hillman Foundation executive director Alexandra Lescaze and consultant Tom Watson. Photos of the march, here.

Unions March with Occupy Wall Street today in New York City

In about an hour, several major unions will join the Occupy Wall Street protesters for a mass rally and march in New York City and Clear it with Sidney will be there. Here’s a map of the route. Stay tuned for a report this evening.

Koch Industries Bribed For Contracts & Sold to Iran

Koch Industries won contracts with bribes and sold millions of dollars worth of petrochemical equipment to Iran, according to a new expose by Asjylyn Loder and David Evans of Bloomberg.

The politicking of oil baron brothers Charles and David has made the Koch name (pronounced “Coke”) a household word. Koch Industries has spent over $50 million on federal lobbying since 2006. Koch charities have spent millions more on infrastructure for the conservative movement. Koch-funded academies have trained a generation of Tea Party activists.

Loder and Evans reveal that Koch Industries bribed company officials overseas to secure contracts with their firms. The illegal payments were made through the French-owned subsidiary, Koch-Glistch, but when the nefarious activity came to light in French labor courts, whistleblowers convinced the courts that the wrongdoing reached far up the chain of command. Koch Industries also used foreign subsidiaries to circumvent the U.S. ban on trading with Iran, an officially recognized state sponsor of terrorism.

Those are just the new allegations of wrongdoing by Koch Industries. Bloomberg also summarizes a littany of misdeeds that the company has already been caught and fined for or settled with victims over the past several decades. The story documents how regulations and torts have cost Koch Industries millions of dollars.

Loder and Evans flesh out a rapsheet decades in the making. Offenses include leaking 91 metric tons of the carcinogen benzene into the air and lying about it, bilking Native Americans out of oil royalties, negligently allowing a pipeline to corrode until leaking gas burned two teenagers to death, and much more.

Loder and Evans write:

For six decades around the world, Koch Industries has blazed a path to riches – in part, by making illicit payments to win contracts, trading with a terrorist state, fixing prices, neglecting safety and ignoring environmental regulations. At the same time, Charles and David Koch have promoted a form of government that interferes less with company actions.

This story is a courageous and damning indictment of Koch Industries. What’s more, the authors explicitly link the Koch Brothers’ philosophy of unfettered capitalism and their unethical business practices.

There’s no point in speculating about whether the Koch’s investment in the anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-tort activism is fuelled by greed or sincere conviction. From a citizen’s perspective, it makes no difference whether they are driven by pure profit, or whether they sincerely believe that their property entitles them to i) swindle other companies by bribing their employees to make contracts that never would have survived in the free market, ii) to trade with an enemy of the United States, iii) to pollute our environment, and iv) to steal natural resources from their rightful owners. The only question is whether we, the people, think they’re so entitled, and if not, what we are going to do about it?

[Photo credit: Sue Peacock, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Highlights of the Week

Every Friday on Clear it With Sidney, we publish a list of the best socially conscious journalism we’ve seen in the past week. To suggest a story for Sidney’s Picks, tweet @sidneyhillman and use the hashtag #Sidney.

-“Veteran Agitators Flock to Occupy Wall Street,” by Daniel Massey in Crain’s Business Daily, Sep. 29. A sea change for the #OccupyWallSt movement as major New York unions pledge their support.

-“A Spray Like a Punch in the Face,” by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times, Sep. 27. Dwyer notes that all pepper spray cannisters in New York bear the following message, “The use of this substance or device for any purpose other than self-defense is a criminal offense under the law.” Deputy inspector Anthony Bologna was caught on video spraying protesters who had already been trapped with crowd control mesh.

-“Big Business: Undo the Damage of ‘Citizens United’,” by George Zornick in The Nation, Sep. 28. A real man-bites-dog story.

-“Outsize Severance Continues for Executives, Even After Failed Tenures,” by Eric Dash in the New York Times, Sep. 29. Lousy CEOs are still getting hefty severance packages.

-“Companies Use Immigration Crackdown to Turn a Profit,” by Nina Bernstein (past Hillman Prize winner), in the New York Times, Sep. 28. Private immigration detention companies are making big bucks at the expense of human rights.

-“Why the Kochs Want to Make Chris Christie President,” by Adele Stan in AlterNet, Sep. 27. Short answer: union-busting.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]